Monday, November 20th, 2023

‘Donec est totum’: On God’s Gradualness

A Homily for the 25th Sunday after Pentecost

Which a woman hid in three measures of meal, until the whole was leavened” (Mt 13).

“We give thanks to God always for you, making a remembrance of you in our prayers without ceasing, being mindful of the work of your faith and labor and charity.” I know what St Paul means. As you and your families prepare to observe Thanksgiving Day, be assured that you occupy a privileged place in my priestly gratitude. You are very patient with me. More importantly, you’re trying to love God much. I bless God for it. Gratias agimus tibi propter magnam gloriam tuam.

However, to say more, St Paul is giving thanks for rather specific grace: namely, the growth in faith and charity he observes in the Catholics of Thessalonika. In them, grace is taking root and accomplishing the purposes of God—and this to such a degree that St Paul says, in effect, “keep doing what you’re doing.” The Thessalonians had repented of their idols, appropriated the Gospel, and were bearing fruit. That is to say, the normal course of the life of grace was unfolding

And I think this is one way to understand one of the parables in today’s Gospel. “The Kingdom of Heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, until the whole was leavened.” Three measures. Baptism in the name of the Three Persons of the Most Holy Trinity. Faith, hope, and charity. Intellect, will, passions. Sanctifying grace involves these triads and more. The woman is the Church, Christ’s bride, the spiritual mother who bears us her sons and daughters. 

But there is another triad worth mentioning, too. The doctors of spiritual theology have, for some time, used a system of three stages to speak about the progress of a soul in grace. They name these stages the purgative, the illuminative, and the unitive. The three ages of the interior life. It is a way to describe this gradual leavening of the mystical dough, so to speak. 

A legitimate question emerges: if we are always extolling the power of grace, the power of the Sacraments and sacramentals, why is it that we don’t become perfect Christians immediately? Why is it that we must repeatedly access the fonts of grace in order to advance in spiritual age? Why are there stages at all? In one sense, it is easy to see—our bodies and minds grow in maturity and knowledge, why wouldn’t the soul need to do the same after its own fashion? 

That analogy certainly works, but there is more to be said. I look to Dom Anselm Stolz (1900-1942) and his book on the spiritual life for some explanation. He identifies two different sides of St Paul’s teaching. First, the decisiveness of Baptism: “the neophyte is removed from the sphere of the flesh, dominated by sin”1 and becomes another Christ, the new Man. Passages abound in St Paul which describe this, but Romans 6 is illustrative: “All we who are baptized into Christ Jesus are baptized in His death.” Christ’s death and our Baptism are a decisive.

But then there is a second side of St Paul’s teaching, in which he gives commands and admonitions. Again, a passage from Romans is typical: “put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ.” Now, a command can’t be given where obedience is not possible. So, this leads Dom Anselm to observe that, “the Christian life is in a state of incompleteness.”2 The spiritual dough is not yet fully leavened. But why is this? Dom Anselm continues:

In his inmost being, the Christian is raised out of the sphere of the flesh; yet, at the same time, the law of flesh is still written in his members, and he must still pay death its due.

By “in his members” Dom Anselm means in our bodies; in our habits, passions, thoughts, desires. These aspects of our person have to catch up, as it were. But he goes deeper by saying, 

The entire redemptive work of Christ, which was certainly not concluded by the fact of the incarnation, is mirrored again in the life of the individual Christian.3 

That is a very important point. The mission of Christ was not actually compete the moment He became incarnate. As we know, He grew, lived, taught, labored, suffered, died, rose, ascended, and will return. All of these stages form part of our salvation; Christ’s mission had to unfold. Therefore, we too must gradually correspond to the implantation of grace in ourselves. We must do things as Christ did them; as He does them. Our participation is mysterious, but somehow necessary. Divine Providence seems to have a particular love of the careful, gradual growth of things. The dramatic, sudden acts of God are few, His acts of care are many. 

Thus Dom Anselm again:

It remains the task of the individual, with the help of God’s grace, gradually to extinguish the law of sin in his members, and to prepare for the resurrection of the flesh by means of the new life-principle bestowed on him.4   

In other words, our spiritual life advances “until the whole was leavened.” And that full leavening is only finished upon our death. Dom Anselm gives a definition of the spiritual life itself, the very definition of what it is our life here below is about: “This asceticism is the continuous and progressive carrying into effect Christ’s death in the case of the individual man.”5

So in answer to the question, Why doesn’t our perfection happen all at once? I say that grace is so powerful it must happen gradually. Grace is so abundant that it will always be at work. Because there can be no end to the gifts and perfections which grace is capable of bestowing. To ask, “Why am I not advanced to such and such a degree?” is, in effect, to ask the wrong question. In some sense, it is none of our business; we are forbidden to worry over it. Yes, we may speak of the stages of spiritual growth, but we may not speak of its ever coming to an end. To say that our spiritual growth could terminate would be to imply that Christ is limited in His gift. Rather, there is by no means any such limit.  

  1. Anselm Stolz OSB, The Doctrine of Spiritual Perfection, trans Aidan Williams OSB (Wipf & Stock, Eugene: 2013) p 40. ↩︎
  2. Ibid, 41. ↩︎
  3. Ibid. ↩︎
  4. Ibid. ↩︎
  5. Ibid, 41-42. ↩︎

{ Art Credit: Anders Zorn, Bakery, 1889 }

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